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Three San Francisco dining adventures

The Bay Area goes for gourmet fare in a greasy spoon, a movie drive-in without cars and pitch-dark dining.

October 04, 2009|Phil Zimmerman

SAN FRANCISCO — "So what are you having for breakfast this evening?" asked the waiter, while pouring Sauvignon Blanc into tiny white ceramic cups typically used for hot tea.

As I reviewed the menu, I could feel the stranger next to me at the communal table leaning over my left shoulder.

"You should really try the Burmese fish stew," said the woman with bright bleached blond and pink hair. "It's absolutely to die for."

Welcome to one of the latest quirky restaurants to hit the dining scene in San Francisco, a city known for its culinary excellence and a style all its own. Of course, you can always visit the usual spots such as the Slanted Door. But why not try something beyond shaking beef? Might we suggest a renegade restaurant that serves gourmet street food, a high-end romantic eatery that plays foreign films or dining in pitch darkness and served by a blind wait staff?

Mission Street Food: gourmet grunge

Most days, Lung Shan, a ramshackle Chinese restaurant on Mission Street, looks like a typical greasy spoon in this rough-around-the-edges part of town. But on Thursday and Saturday nights, the scene changes and groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings jam the sidewalk as they wait for a table. It's not General Tso's Chicken that's the draw.

"You're going to be waiting for at least an hour," the young hostess said. "Tonight's menu is breakfast-inspired, so it's worth your wait."

This was my first experience at Mission Street Food, one of the dining trends in a city that's always looking for something cutting-edge. It was developed by husband-and-wife team Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, who each week invite a guest chef to create a menu with all proceeds going to a charity of his or her choice.

Myint and Leibowitz hesitated to invest in a bricks-and-mortar restaurant during the economic downturn. So they rented a food truck last October and began serving haute cuisine, such as smoked duck beignets and a nontraditional PB&J made with pork belly and jicama for about $6 each. Word spread fast on food blogs and social networking sites, and they moved into the current no-frills location in November.

Inside, the decor is an odd mixture of holiday kitsch and old-world communism with strings of Christmas lights and faded propaganda posters of Chinese soldiers and pastoral landscapes.

My friend Isabelle joined me with a cheap bottle of wine from the corner bodega. Even with a $5 corkage fee, it was less expensive than the water at some restaurants. Two to three dishes per person are recommended, but we shared the Filipino-style pork with garlic rice and mango; a breakfast flatbread with scrambled eggs, bacon and salsa; and homemade pita crisps with fava puree. The meal cost $30 with the wine.

If breakfast isn't your thing, other themes featured McDonald's classics with a gourmet twist (smoked tofu McNuggets) or Mission Stoned Food, which included hot pockets with chicken curry for late-night munchies.

Whatever the theme, Mission Street Food attracts an eclectic crowd looking for gourmet food at bargain prices.

Foreign Cinema: dinner and a movie

Foreign Cinema isn't the typical romantic restaurant. With its blend of Northern California's laid-back style and Tinseltown's trendy atmosphere, it will impress a special date or an indie film buff.

Each month, the restaurant shows a different film, as diverse as the Academy Award-winning documentary "Man on Wire" and Roman Polanski's classic film noir "Chinatown." At the recommendation of a native San Franciscan, I decided to bring a date here.

"I bet you're glad you made reservations," the host said as we walked by patrons waiting to be seated. "It's been crazy tonight."

As the sun began to set, a troupe of modish waiters dashed through the open-air courtyard lighting the overhead heat lamps. Suddenly, the white brick wall flickered overhead with the opening of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Red," a seductive story of forbidden love.

Beside each table stood a pair of old-fashioned drive-in speakers with volume controls that could be turned down, if you wanted to talk, or cranked up, if you wanted to drown out nearby diners. As I turned down the soundtrack, the waiter arrived with the menus and reviewed the specials.

The entrees are reasonably priced ($20 to $27) with variations on traditional dishes such as Alaskan halibut in Champagne sauce and Madras curry roast chicken.

As we shared the rich chocolate pot de creme for dessert, I realized we hadn't paid attention to the film since we arrived. Was it the food? Or better yet, the sign of a good date? Whatever the reason, the setting was only part of what made the experience unique.

Opaque: a feast for the senses

Walking down the dimly illuminated staircase at Opaque, a "dark" dining experience, feels more like entering an amusement park fun house than a restaurant.

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